The Scariest Stories Ever

A recent episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured a very interesting topic for genre fans: the panelists discussed their own (as well as their audience’s) choices for “The Scariest Short Stories Ever Written.”

To be sure, such an endeavor is inevitably subjective, contingent on individual trigger points and stylistic preferences (realistic or supernatural horror, quiet or splatterpunk), and influenced by the personal mood and cultural moment in which the tale is first encountered. Accordingly, any citations should be taken in the vein of nomination, not prescription.

With that being said, I’d like to add my own two cents to the discussion with the belated addition of the pair of titles I would choose:

1. The Mist by Stephen King: Yes, I realize that technically this is a novella and not a short story. It is also one harrowing narrative–an environmental disaster turned Lovecraftian apocalypse. King gothicized a seemingly safe space (until that point, the supermarket had been the place to which I happily ventured with my mom to gather weekly treats), besieging it with carnivorous monsters from another dimension, to say nothing of the human fanatics the protagonists find themselves trapped with inside the store. I can remember lying on my bed with my copy of Skeleton Crew as a young teenager, utterly engrossed by the story, when a housefly happened to buzz past my ear. I jumped so high and so hard, I almost dented the ceiling.

2. “Darkness Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller: This transgressive, technophobic tale–which reads like a combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick–is aptly placed in Nightmare magazine. It concerns an especially nasty piece of malware that is driving people to commit hate crimes and acts of mind-boggling violence. The story is rife with disturbing images (one character threatens to feed a bag of spiders to a captive one by one). The subject matter seems even more insidious based on the piece’s (mid-pandemic) time of publication, when social distancing has driven everyone towards social media. Miller’s account of Americans’ descent into insane incivility perfectly captures the frightful divisiveness gripping the country during the Trump presidency. As a constant reader of horror, I am not easily moved, but have to admit that this one struck a nerve and stuck with me long after.

 

But why stop at two? Here’s a listing of further contenders for the title of “Scariest Story.” I make no claim of exhaustiveness; hundreds of other selections no doubt could be added here. Consider this a starter set of recommended reads rather than the be-all and end-all of superlative horror narratives.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s unflinching depiction of a lynching sears its way into the reader’s consciousness, and proves that “haunting” is not limited to restless ghosts and remote mansions.

“Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker: This rampaging-monster/folk-horror tale used unrelenting terror to secure the #1 spot on my recent Books of Blood Countdown.

“Old Virginia” by Laird Barron: The explanation given here for the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is more terrifying than any real-world theory ever postulated.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood: Don’t be mislead by the innocuous title–this is outdoor horror (and cosmic encroachment) at its finest.

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury: A late-night journey through a dark ravine surely isn’t a great idea when a serial killer is on the loose. Creepy atmosphere builds towards a shocking clincher.

“The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage: Uncanniness unparalleled, as a freelance journalist attempts to spend the night in a wax museum’s “Murderers’ Den.”

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell: Ever since reading this eerie tale, I’ve never been able to enter a park shelter without fear brushing its fingers against my thoughts.

“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter: Carter’s feminist revision of the Beauty and the Beast narrative also works as a quintessential spreader of Gothic terror.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: The unforgettable title forewarns of the unspeakable horrors in store in this classic tale that takes the technology-run-amok theme to the extreme.

“Home” by Charles L. Grant: The master of quiet, atmospheric horror makes even a simple sandbox and set of swings the stuff of nightmares.

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill: Hill makes a strong bid for his father’s genre crown with this early–and completely unnerving–story.

“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” by Glen Hirshberg: A gut-punch of a ghost story, set at the most sinister Halloween attraction since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs: Never has a a knock on the door been more unwelcome than in this ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative.

“The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones: The supernatural, pederastic clown haunting the pages of this story (which packs enough nightmare fuel to power an epic novel) leaves the reader almost pining for Pennywise.

“Gone” by Jack Ketchum: A legend of no-holds-barred horror, Ketchum demonstrates that he can chill just as easily with a more restrained approach, in this Halloween tale of devastating parental grief.

“God of the Razor” by Joe R. Lansdale: Jack the Ripper seems like Jack Tripper compared to the supernatural slasher that Lansdale imagines here.

“Gas Station Carnivals” by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti’s mesmerizing prose freezes the reader with fear in this tale that stages a dreadful revelation.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft: For my money, the narrator’s attempt to escape from the Gilman House (and from the clutches of the monstrosities haunting the hotel) constitutes the most harrowing sequence in the entire Lovecraft canon.

“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen: The granddaddy of weird tales, replete with human iniquity and terrible incursion by the otherworldly.

“Prey” by Richard Matheson: The written exploits of the bloodthirsty Zuni-warrior doll are arguably even more horrifying than what appears in the Trilogy of Terror film adaptation.

“Yellow Jacket Summer” by Robert R. McCammon: This Southern Gothic take on “It’s a Good Life” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my wasp phobia.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell: Morrell’s is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of cosmic horror, but the author produces an eye-popping example of it here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor: A family excursion (humorously narrated) takes a sharp left into the macabre, when the murderous Misfit arrives at the scene of a car accident.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates builds narrative suspense to an almost unbearable level, as the reader suspects that there is more than the mere seduction of a teenage girl at stake.

“Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s notorious, unabashedly grotesque story of onanism gone wrong ultimately haunts because its extreme scenes of body horror are all too plausible.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge: A hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic take on Lovecraft, featuring eldritch wretches born from the bellies of human corpses.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s colorful plague tale painfully reminds the reader that bloody demise can be the fate of anyone.

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea: Shea frays the reader’s every last nerve here with surgical precision. I can’t believe this graphic shockfest (first published in 1980) has yet to be adapted as a cinematic feature.

“Iverson’s Pits” by Dan Simmons: A Gettysburg-commemorating ceremony becomes the site of supernatural events that make the horrors of the Civil War seem positively quaint by comparison.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: If you didn’t know what a lich was prior to reading this unsettling sylvan tale, you certainly will (never be able to forget) afterward.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson: “The Mist” meets “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” as a group of tourists in Genoa are preyed upon by a human-sized iteration of Cthulhu (in the role of sadistic slasher/wrathful god).

 

Mob Scene: “The Crowd”

Curiosity killed the catastrophe sufferer.

The eponymous ensemble in Ray Bradbury’s 1943 short story “The Crowd” appears seemingly out of nowhere, and arrives too quickly at the scene of traffic accidents: “That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity.” Honing in on a big bang, the amassing crowd is like “an explosion in reverse, the fragments of a detonation sucked back to the point of impulsion.” Matters grow more uncanny when Bradbury’s protagonist, the car crash survivor Spallner, discovers in his obsessive investigations the same set of faces looming over victims at random accident scenes over the years. Spallner isn’t sure if these figures manifesting “at any public demonstration of this thing called death” are “vultures, hyenas, or saints.” By tale’s end, Spallner (after getting into a second wreck) comes to suspect that the crowd is comprised of the specters of past accident victims. Worse, they seem to be stealthy murderers, who dispatch the wounded under the guise of assistance (e.g. moving the body of someone with a spinal injury).

Bradbury’s classic story demonstrates that not all mobs operate via the lofting of torch and pitchfork. Their menace exists less in their othering impulse than in their smothering impulse. In the final paragraphs, an incapacitated Spallner looks up at the grim witnesses of his predicament and thinks, “You’re the crowd that’s always in the way, using up good air that a dying man’s lungs are in need of, using up space he should be using to lie in alone. Tramping on people to make sure they die, that’s you.”

“The Crowd” takes a commonplace idea–the propensity for gawkers to gather in morbid curiosity at accident scenes–and adds a supernatural/sinister twist. Bradbury also touches on something primal here, reminding readers that to be human is to be born into disadvantage: throughout life, every individual is grossly outnumbered by other people. This is quite a daunting notion, even if such multitudes (contra “The Crowd”) don’t prove to be something other than people.

 

Trains of Thought

The subject of this week’s Lore episode has got me thinking: what are the most unnerving trains to appear in the horror genre throughout history? In terms of fiction, these works immediately come to mind: Robert Aickman’s “The Trains,” Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train,” Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass (featuring that riddle-loving pain, Blaine the Mono), and Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.”  Aside from the film adaptation of that Books of Blood story, there’s also Terror Train and Train to Busan in the cinematic realm. But the most memorable engine of terror might be the locomotive that delivers Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show to Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sounds of that funeral train’s whistle are not soon forgotten:

 The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests  of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, bursting over the earth!

The carnival’s late-night arrival also forms a signature scene in the 1983 film version:

 

Any great train narratives in the horror genre that I failed to track here? Let me know in the comments section below.

Dark Carnival Brilliance: 10 Wickedly Good Descriptions in Bradbury’s Classic Novel

Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes remains a perennial October re-read. One key to the book’s lasting popularity is the poetry infusing Bradbury’s prose. The author uses his unparalleled gift for description to immerse his audience in the autumnal scene. Virtually every page of the novel features instances of haunting imagery and captivating language, but here below are my choices for the ten most memorable passages.

(All quotes are taken from the October 2017 Simon & Schuster trade paperback, a definitive edition recommended not just for the text of Bradbury’s novel itself, but also for the extensive “History, Context and Criticism” section appended to it.)

 

1.A Frost Maiden on Display:

And in the window, like a great coffin boat of star-colored glass, beached on two sawhorses lay a chunk of Alaska Snow Company ice chopped to a size great enough to flash in a giant’s ring. (p. 40)

 

2.Overnight Incoming:

There, on the precipice of earth, a small steam feather uprose like the first of a storm cloud yet to come.

The train itself appeared, link by link, engine, coal-car, and numerous and numbered all-asleep-and-slumbering-dreamfilled cars that followed the firefly-sparked churn, chant, drowsy autumn hearthfire roar. Hellfires flushed the stunned hills. Even at this remote view, one imagined men with buffalo-haunched arms shoveling black meteor falls of coal into the open boilers of the engine. (p. 44)

 

3.The Very Antithesis of Merry:

They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their  panic-colored teeth. (p. 69)

 

4.Suitably Sinister:

His vest was the color of flesh blood. His eyebrows, his hair, his suit were licorice black, and the sun-yellow gem which stared from the tie pin thrust in his cravat was the same unblinking shade and bright crystal as his eyes. But in this instant, swiftly, and with utter clearness, it was the suit which fascinated Will. for it seemed woven of boar-bramble, clock-spring hair, bristle, and a sort of ever-trembling, ever-glistening dark hemp. The suit caught light and stirred like a bed of black tweed-thorns, interminably itching, covering the man’s long body with motion so it seemed he should excruciate, cry out, and tear the clothes free. (p. 70)

 

5.A Fiery Rehearsal:

And there the Lava Sipper, Vesuvio of the chafed tongue, of the scalded teeth, who spun scores of fireballs up, hissing in a ferris of flame which streaked shadows along the tent roof.

Nearby, in booths, another thirty freaks watched the fires fly until the Lava Sipper glanced, saw intruders, and let his universe fall. The suns drowned in a a water tub. (p. 101)

 

6.Hearkening in the Dark:

What sort of noise does a balloon make, adrift?

None.

No, not quite. It noises itself, it soughs, like the wind billowing your curtains all white as breaths of foam. Or it makes a sound like the stars turning over in your sleep. Or it announces itself like moonrise and moonset. That last is best: like the moon sailing the universal deeps, so rides a balloon. (p.130-131)

 

7.Mr. Halloway Monologue:

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by death-watch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the pyramids seasoning it with other people’s salt and other people’s cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the long road out of the Gothic and baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn  by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.” (p. 182-183)

 

8.Horripilating Skin Show:

Mr. Dark came carrying his panoply of friends, his jewel-case assortment of calligraphical reptiles which lay sunning themselves at midnight on his flesh. With him strode the stitch-inked Tyrannosaurus rex, which lent to his haunches a machined and ancient wellspring mineral-oil glide. As the thunder lizard strode, all glass-bead pomp, so strode Mr. Dark, armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by that thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh.  It was the pterodactyl kite and scythe which raised his arms almost to fly the marbled vaults. And with the inked and stencilled flashburnt shapes of pistoned or bladed doom came his usual crowd of hangers-on, spectators gripped to each limb, seated on shoulder blades, peering from his jungled chest, hung upside down in microscopic millions in his armpit vaults screaming bat-screams for encounters, ready for the hunt and if need be the kill. Like a black tidal wave upon a bleak shore, a dark tumult infilled with phosphorescent beauties and badly spoiled dreams, Mr. Dark sounded and hissed his feet, his legs, his body, his sharp face forward. (p. 196-197)

 

9.Plying Her Craft:

The Witch toppled forward with her seamed black wax sewn-shut iguana eyelids and her great proboscis with the nostrils caked like tobacco-blackened pipe bowls, her fingers tracing, weaving a silent plinth of symbols on the mind.

The boys stared.

Her fingernails fluttered, darted, feathered cold winter-water air. Her pickled green frog’s breath crawled their flesh in pimples as she sang softly, mewing, humming, glistering her babes, her boys, her friends of the slick snail-tracked roof, the straight-flung arrow, the stricken and sky-drowned balloon. (p. 204)

 

10.The Show Can’t Go On:

Then at last, the Freak Tent, the great melancholy mothering reptile bird, after a moment of indecision, sucked in a Niagara of blizzard air, broke loose three hundred hempen snakes, crack-rattled its black side-poles so they fell like teeth from a cyclopean jaw, slammed the air with acres of moldered wing as if trying to kite away but, earth-tettered, must succumb to plain and most simple gravity, must be crushed by its own locked bulk.

Now this greatest tent staled out hot raw breaths of earth, confetti that was ancient when the canals of Venice were not yet staked, and wafts of pink cotton candy like tired feather boas. In rushing downfalls, the tent shed skin; grieved, soughed as flesh fell away until at last the tall museum timbers at the spine of the discarded monster dropped with three cannon roars. (p. 252-253)

 

 

Countdown: Ray Bradbury’s Top 10 Dark Carnival/October Country Stories

In 2011, as part of the celebration of Ray Bradbury Month on my old blog Macabre Republic, I counted down his ten best works of carnivalesque and autumnal short fiction (not every story gathered in the collections Dark Carnival and The October Country qualified, and some selections came from other Bradbury volumes). As another October unfolds here in 2017, I thought it would be fitting to import that countdown to this new site.

#10.”The Dead Man” (collected in Bradbury Stories: 100 of his Most Celebrated Tales)

Without a doubt, this is Bradbury’s most subtle piece of Halloween fiction. It unfolds as an offbeat bit of American Gothic, concerning a vagabond who walks around–when he’s not stretching himself out supine in the gutter–claiming that he died by drowning during the flood that destroyed his farm. The townspeople treat “Odd Martin” as a local kook more than a metaphysical marvel (one resident, though, suggests that the reason everyone jokes about Odd is because deep down they are scared to take him seriously). It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the story that the time of year becomes clear, when a group of teens try to recruit Odd as an animated prop for their Halloween party. The scene is brief yet pivotal, because the teens’ callous, condescending attitudes leave Odd in a “strange and bitter” mood; soon thereafter he decides to get himself cleaned up and to propose marriage to Miss Weldon, the lonely manicurist who has always been kind to him.  This decision in turn facilitates the story’s twist ending: the revelation of where the newlyweds have made their home (hint: Odd didn’t deal with the town’s sole real estate broker when purchasing the place).

With its seamless blend of the sentimental and the macabre, “The Dead Man” is vintage Bradbury. And if Halloween represents a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurs, then the October-ending holiday is perfectly suited to themes of this pleasantly haunting tale.

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